Wednesday , December 2 2020

Xbox Series S review: small console, big potential

The Xbox Series S is the smallest Xbox Microsoft has ever created. It’s also the Xbox with the biggest questions hanging over it. Microsoft surprised everyone with this smaller, cheaper next-gen Xbox, promising that the Series S is “designed to play games at 1440p at 60 frames per second.” At $299, the Xbox Series S looks, on paper, like a budget entry into the next generation of Xbox games. But the reality is a little more complicated.

The Series S shares most of the same internal components as the larger Series X. That means you get load time improvements, games that run smoother, and the promise of up to 120fps in certain titles. The big difference is the GPU power involved, which, in reality, means most people will need to pair this tiny Xbox with a 1080p TV or monitor. This is a console for those who don’t care about 4K, but questions over its capabilities still remain for me. Will this console hold back next-gen games? Will it do ray tracing well? Will it hit 1440p?

The Xbox Series S is a small console with big potential and a whole lot of questions left unanswered for now.

When I first unboxed the Xbox Series S, I was shocked at the size. It’s really tiny, and I adore the robotic white design. The Xbox Series S is just 275mm (10.8 inches) tall, 151mm (5.9 inches) deep, and 63.5mm (2.5 inches) wide in a vertical position. Microsoft has placed rubber feet in both vertical and horizontal positions, and there are plenty of vents for cooling. Unlike the larger Series X, I think the Xbox Series S looks great in both orientations. It can also fit comfortably into my TV stand, and it feels like it has been designed to fit a normal person’s living room, rather than taking it over like the PS5 and Xbox Series X do.

At the rear, there are two USB ports, an Ethernet port, a storage expansion slot, and HDMI 2.1 out. Microsoft has added Braille bumps next to the rear ports here, which is a great move for accessibility. At the front, there’s a single USB port and no disc drive. That’s the first big difference on the Xbox Series S besides just size: you won’t be able to use any Xbox game discs you already own. You’ll need to own digital versions of games and continue to buy games through Microsoft’s digital store.

Sadly, the Xbox Series S doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6, and there are no USB-C ports. That’s a shame for future-proofing, but I think most people will miss the disc drive here more than improvements to Wi-Fi and USB ports.

The most attention-grabbing feature of the Xbox Series S design is the speaker-like black circle at the top. It’s the main fan for the Series S, and it’s where heat exhausts out of the console. I’ve only ever heard a gentle hum from the Series S, and I’ve never heard the fans really kick in during gameplay.

In terms of heat, I’d say the Xbox Series S exhausts warmer air than the larger Series X. It’s not to the point where it’s too hot to touch, but I wouldn’t want to enclose this deep inside a TV stand where airflow is restricted.

The other piece of hardware that comes in the box with the Series S is an updated white controller. It’s very similar to the Xbox One version, with an updated D-pad, textured grips, and the addition of a new share button and a USB-C port. The share button lets you quickly share clips or screenshots with friends, much like on a PS4, while you’ll need to purchase a rechargeable play-and-charge kit separately ($24.99) if you want to take advantage of USB-C — the controller runs on AA batteries by default.

Much like the larger Xbox Series X, the Series S includes a more powerful CPU and SSD storage. Both of these hardware improvements combine with 4 teraflops of GPU performance to improve existing games. This results in dramatic improvements to load times for most games. Destiny 2, which has not yet been optimized for this console, loads in just 39 seconds on the Series S. Optimized games like Sea of Thieves load in 20 seconds, and Forza Horizon 4 takes 42 seconds to get into racing.

I’ve noticed similar improvements to existing games on the Series S that I’ve seen on the Series X. Games that are currently locked to 30fps will mostly maintain these frame rates more reliably than an Xbox One S. Destiny 2 hasn’t been optimized for the Series S yet, but it feels smoother and menus are more responsive.

I’ve also tried a variety of optimized Xbox Series S games, including Sea of Thieves and Forza Horizon 4. Both hit 60fps at 1080p on the Series S, and not the 1440p target that Microsoft promised for this console. Sea of Thieves feels like I’m playing on a PC at times, thanks to the smooth gameplay. Forza Horizon 4 also feels much smoother than what I’ve experienced on the Xbox One S version of the game running at 30fps.

Unfortunately, most games will run as if they were Xbox One S games and won’t benefit from the enhancements Microsoft made with the Xbox One X. That’s mostly because the Series S isn’t targeting 4K, and most of the One X enhancements were geared toward 4K resolution and HDR.

That means, a lot of the time, the Xbox Series S still feels like an Xbox One S. Titles that use dynamic resolution scaling will also benefit from hitting the max resolution target more often, but without testing the thousands of games available, it’s hard to pick out big changes here. The changes I noticed the most came from the optimized games I’ve been testing, and they provide a glimpse at what’s possible on the Xbox Series S.

Gears 5 and Dirt 5 also demonstrate the ability for the Series S to deliver smooth 120fps gaming. The versus multiplayer mode of Gears 5 runs at 120fps on the Series S, and it feels far smoother than what’s available on the Xbox One S right now. Dirt 5 also runs in a 120fps mode, reducing the input latency when you’re cornering with the various cars in the game.

These optimized games and 120Hz modes really demonstrate the potential for the Xbox Series S, but if you’re planning to pair the Series S with a 1440p or 1080p high refresh monitor, I would check to make sure it supports 120Hz over the HDMI port. My own 1440p monitor runs at 165Hz via DisplayPort, but over HDMI, it’s limited to just 60Hz. Most modern monitors should include HDMI 2.0, but a lot of high refresh rate gaming monitors have shipped in recent years without HDMI 2.0 support.

While the Xbox Series S isn’t designed to be a 4K console, I’ve spent a lot of time using it on a 4K TV. Some titles like Destiny 2 don’t look that great automatically upscaled to a 4K TV, but others, like Watch Dogs: Legion, looked good to me. I imagine my OLED display helps mask a lot of the resolution imperfections in Watch Dogs: Legion though, as the game is set in London where it’s regularly dark and raining.

I should note here that while I was testing Watch Dogs: Legion on the Xbox Series S, Microsoft disabled the game midway through the review period. Before that, Watch Dogs: Legion had managed to totally lock up my console, turning it off entirely once. It also crashed frequently while I was playing it. I reported these issues, and it turns out, this version of Watch Dogs: Legion will include an optimized patch for Series S at launch. The version I had been testing “is not representative of the experience players will have on Xbox Series X|S,” Microsoft says.

I wasn’t able to replicate any similar crashes or issues with other games I tested on the Xbox Series S, so it looks like this was limited to this build of Watch Dogs: Legion. Given the game has been crashing Xbox One X consoles and PCs, it clearly has larger stability issues.

Just like the Series X, there’s a trend emerging for next-gen Xbox games that offer much more choice and flexibility. Dirt 5, Gears 5, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon all offer a choice between higher frame rates or visual quality. I’m hoping this trend continues across both the Series X and Series S.

One trend with the Xbox Series S I’ve also spotted is that most optimized games appear to be targeting 1080p at 60fps instead of 1440p at 60fps. Microsoft made a big deal about this being a 1440p console, but Sea of Thieves, Forza Horizon 4, Fortnite, Watch Dogs: Legion, and For Honor will all run at 1080p instead. Yakuza: Like a Dragon and Gears Tactics are exceptions to what looks like the normal, but Yakuza only hits 1440p at 30fps.

I’d like to imagine developers are simply targeting 1080p, as that’s what most people will be using the Xbox Series S for, and it’s a relatively easy lift. I’m surprised that Microsoft’s own first-party games like Sea of Thieves and Forza Horizon 4 aren’t hitting 1440p, though. I’m hoping I’ll be proved wrong, and we’ll see lots of 1440p games for the Xbox Series S in the coming months, but I have a feeling this is very much going to be a 1080p console.

Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that no one actually reads. It’s impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we started counting exactly how many times you have to hit “agree” to use devices when we review them, since these are agreements most people don’t read and definitely can’t negotiate.

To start using an Xbox Series X or Series S:

You can also say yes or no to:

That’s three mandatory agreements and one optional one to use an Xbox Series X or Series S.

Two of the biggest benefits of the Xbox Series S over the existing Xbox One are storage and a new Quick Resume feature. SSD storage boosts load times and performance, and I’m really glad Microsoft picked this for the cheaper Series S. While it’s great to have the fast speeds, I don’t think there’s enough storage space on the Series S for most people.

You only get 364GB of usable storage on the Series S. I have six games installed on the Series S, and it’s almost full. Call of Duty: Warzone and Destiny 2 take up over 100GB each, leaving little space for more games. Even if we estimate that the average AAA game is around 50GB, that’s still only seven games in total.

Microsoft has promised that Xbox Series S game install sizes will be around 30 percent smaller than the Series X, but I’ve noticed Gears 5 is 76.4GB on both the Series S and Series X. I hope games do get a lot smaller, but for now, the storage will be a problem for many. You can offload games to USB storage and then switch them back to the internal storage when you want to play them, but most would benefit from the expandable storage here.

The only option to expand the Xbox Series S storage is a 1TB expansion card priced at $219. That’s nearly three-quarters of the price of the console itself; combined, it’s nearly $520 for the Series S and additional storage. That’s more than the $499 price of the Xbox Series X, which comes with twice as much built-in storage. Microsoft needs to either release an Xbox Series S with 1TB of storage or introduce more sizes of expandable storage for this console. Either of these options, including buying USB storage, will cost you more money, though.

If you do manage to fill up the Xbox Series S with plenty of games, you’ll be able to quickly switch between them, thanks to Quick Resume. It suspends games and saves them to disk after you switch to another title, meaning you can switch back and, 10 seconds later, your game is ready to play.

I think this is the best new feature across the Xbox Series S and X, and when it works, it works really well. Unfortunately, not all games support it. GTA V, Sea of Thieves, Forza Horizon 4, and many others don’t support Quick Resume. Microsoft is still working to enable Quick Resume on a number of games due to a “recently discovered platform bug,” so updates should arrive after launch. While most games should support Quick Resume, it’s still not clear which missing ones will get updated.

I also ran into an issue with Quick Resume on Gears 5 during my final day of testing where it failed to load the game and presented a “something went wrong” error. After launching the game again, twice, it finally loaded properly without my Quick Resume point. I ran into issues like these frequently with the Xbox Series X preview unit, but this is the only time I’ve experienced the software problem on a retail unit.

Speaking of software, the Series S also includes the same dashboard as the Series X. If you’re an Xbox One user, it looks identical, as Microsoft has kept the same interface and features here. It definitely feels like it performs faster, and I think the general improvements that have been made to the Xbox dashboard in recent months have helped here.

I still find the Xbox guide cumbersome to use sometimes, though. Microsoft could do with offering more customization options here and simplifying the interface further. I’d also like to see the sharing of clips greatly improved. The Xbox Series S has a new share button, but it still takes far too long for clips and screenshots to be uploaded to Microsoft’s Xbox Live service for you to share them.

This is a problem that exists on the Xbox One, and I’ve had to wait minutes for clips to be available, despite having a fast 1Gbps upload at home. On my gaming PC, I can instantly stream clips or my screen to friends on Discord, and the Xbox process feels old and slow in comparison.

I’m a big fan of this Xbox Series S design, and the console delivers a great value for $299. If you own an original Xbox One, you’ll immediately see the benefits of load times, faster frame rates, and generally smoother gameplay in most games.

Much like the Xbox Series X, it feels like upgrading a PC if you move from an Xbox One. All accessories work, as do games, and many will run even better than before. This will be a significant upgrade for many games, but don’t expect to buy the Series S for the latest and greatest graphics.

This is absolutely a 1080p console, right now. I’m puzzled why Microsoft said the Series S is “designed to play games at 1440p at 60 frames per second.” That might be true in the future, but right now, some of its own studios have chosen to optimize and target 1080p, and lots of third-party developers are doing the same for Series S games.

A 1440p target would deliver crisper imagery at 1080p and even far better upscaling to 4K if you really wanted to push the Series S. There’s clearly potential for the Series S to deliver 1440p, as Gears Tactics shows. But given the vast majority of Series S owners won’t even use a 1440p display, I can sort of understand the 1080p choices being made. I’m just hoping games for the Series S move more toward 1440p, and not the sub 1080p direction.

It feels like the Series S has a lot of potential but not enough games to fully realize what this smaller Xbox can do. I’m hoping to see more games offer 120fps modes on the Series S, choices for graphical settings, and ray tracing. There’s a lot of promise here, but it feels too early to say exactly how the Series S will perform in this next generation.

The storage situation will also make this a difficult purchase for some and steer others toward the Series X or even the $399 digital PS5. But the Series S feels like the ideal console for Xbox Game Pass, until xCloud is really a thing people can use reliably on their TVs. Xbox Game Pass includes more than 100 games, and the $299 price tag makes it more affordable to dig into this giant library and play some older classics and even Microsoft’s latest titles at smoother frame rates and with way faster load times.

The Xbox Series S is full of unknowns right now. The use case for this console isn’t as obvious as some might think. It’s not necessarily the best budget option, thanks to the storage situation. Yet, it looks ideal for a bedroom TV, for Xbox Game Pass, or as a Fortnite console. If you can deal with the storage and you’re only playing on a 1080p TV, then this should make Xbox games shine like never before. I’m just not sure what else it will deliver for the next generation of games we’re all excited about.

This Article was first published on theverge.com

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